Gator and I were very excited. We had a "day off", our friend Brian has joined us, and were going to be able to get out and do some recreational diving. No huge load of heavy equipment, no set goals for film shots, just swimming around and checking out the local diving. I think that Gator's got reef dives planned seeing he's brought Brian along but I've got a plan of my own. Tim Gernold, our captain and divemaster for the day, is a huge wreck diver that I'm sure can be convinced to take us to my favorite Roi wreck, Eiko Maru.
Tim Gernold took us out in his boat, the Boogieman, a resurrected Boston Whaler with an unusual yet amazingly functional, canvas top that was very welcome to us after struggling in the blistering sun for days on end! The boat is powered by twin Honda 50 horsepower engines, which offered a smooth and quiet ride as we skimmed across the flat waters of the becalmed lagoon. I have to say that we picked the weather window for our project absolutely perfect. The tradewinds dropped off around the time of our arrival, and were still nonexistent on this beautiful day.
Arriving at the wreck site, we dropped our anchors and began suiting up. Brian jumped in to cool off and reported seeing small Grey reef sharks checking us out. These sharks are very curious and territorial, nearly always coming out to see who's dropping anchors in their backyards. We rolled off the boat, and headed down to the wreck. Visibility was poor for this area, but the complaints of the others made me smile and remember some commercial dives I had done in the seaports of the Pacific Northwest, where all you could see was the inside of your helmet! I was in heaven! A world-class shipwreck, festooned in marine life, and littered with the artifacts of a bygone war. At least I could see something! Tim and I checked the anchors, scoped out what the sharks were up to, and began a tour of the ship. I stopped at first to take some water samples to be analyzed as a part of an ongoing project at Salem State College in Massachusetts, where I attend classes. Dr. MacTaylor, check this stuff out!
Tim and I rounded the stern and swam past the hatches leading into the cabins and fantail spaces. We made our way past the crumpled smokestack, and the collapsed mid-ship cabins. The main superstructure is still standing, but only barely. Huge cracks have appeared in the bulkheads, and much of the plating has fallen away. It looked like a giant house of cards, ready to fall at the slightest breath! Peering into the ships Saloon, stanchions from the dining tables could still be seen, only their metal pedestals still in place, the wooden tops long since having been eaten by shipworms. A very curious feature here is a large ceramic fireplace against the forward bulkhead. This is so far the only shipwreck I have ever seen that sports a decorative fireplace! That must have been pretty handy during voyages across the North Pacific, but it seemed somehow out of place at Kwajalein. Moving forward along the port side of the ship we found two barges that were most likely sunk along with the Eiko Maru. They lay at a steep angle, sterns against the bottom, bows resting side by side on the ship's bulwark. There is a lot of wreckage in this area, and some large holes in the hull near the bow. I'll have to remember to tell Jonathan that this could be a great shot of the divers swimming out of the holes .. if the visibility improves! A large gun is mounted on the bow, and boxes of ammo still sit open and ready for a battle that will never come. Deciding it was time to head back, we stopped by the bridge for a bit, and checked out the remains of the radio room and officers quarters. This part of the ship is open and easily visited without any required penetration. It still seems pretty sound, but sits directly on top of the "house of cards" portion of the wreck, so we were very cautious. Finally, with our available bottom time used up, we headed back up the anchor lines, and I said good-bye to an old friend, not knowing if I'll ever get to visit this wonderful wreck again.
After having a snack and discussing our options, we decided that visibility will be better outside the lagoon so we pulled the anchors and head to North Pass to finish our day at one of the best reef sites on the atoll (although that is purely speculative, since there are literally hundreds and hundreds of miles of reef here at Kwajalein Atoll, much of which has never been seen by humans on scuba). Of course, I opted for another wreck dive, but was voted down by Brian and Gator. Gator gave me a "I wanna see some fish" stink-eye look that even Cliff would have been proud of! Now, how could I say no to that?
Once through the pass, we took a hard left, and anchored again approximately 1000 yards south. Here, unlike on the shipwreck, the visibility was great, easily approaching 100 feet. The top of the reef is at about 20 feet, and at first appears scoured almost completely flat. But upon closer inspection, it teams with life such as small fishes, clams, tubeworms, snails, and crabs. Predatory fishes of all sizes sneak in from the drop off, looking for a quick meal, but are pretty much content to hang out in the deeper water just down slope. Heading down the drop, past the area that is subject to the terrific wave action of storms, the table corals, and other stony reef building corals become more and more prolific. Fissures, holes, and crevices offer sanctuary to an abundance of marine life.
The coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific region are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the world, and this is very apparent here. Eels poke their heads out looking for a meal, or just admiring Gator's rebreather and bright green fins. Cleaner wrasses abandon the grouper or snapper they are working on to come over to me and begin to pull the hairs from the exposed backs of my hands. One hair at a time! Tiny, vibrantly colored starfish gently make their way across the coral in search of prey. Clownfish snuggle up inside of huge green and purple anemones, keeping safe from larger organisms like myself, but don't let them fool you. If they are guarding a nest or young, they can be very aggressive for a two-inch long fish. My old Kwajalein dive buddy, Ray West always said; "if they weighed forty pounds, they would be the most dangerous fish in the ocean!" Out in the water column, which is easy to ignore since there is so much to see on the reef, predators such as tuna, sharks, barracuda, and a host of others, cruise silently by. This is a natural wonderland, exquisitely beautiful by any standards.
As tickled as I was to dive "First Ship" again, Gator and Brian we even more ecstatic to have the opportunity to visit this magnificent coral reef environment. But all good things must come to an end, and it was finally time for us to head back to the beach, where we needed to begin getting things ready for the morning, when the bosses came back up from Kwajalein and our "vacation" will be over!
Once back, an outdoor shower preceded a quick trip to the "Outrigger" and the standard Missile Burger (which I would nominate as the official Mission Food Source, or MFS, since everything out here has an acronym!). But since Brian and Gator were still not appeased in their quest for critters, I volunteered to mix the gas for the morning's diving, and sent them off to do a night dive near the Yokohama Pier. Boy, am I ever glad that the Roi-Namur Dolphins Scuba Club has an air-conditioned tank house! Even at night, it gets quite hot and humid during this time of year, and the chill of the AC was welcome tonight indeed!
Gator's Night Dive Addendum:
The Yokahama Pier was built before WWII by the Japanese and suffered severe bombing during the American invasion yet still stands and serves as the Roi marina pier. Diving is allowed on the south side of the pier where there is no boat traffic. This side is pretty shallow and we'll be lucky if we see a depth greater than 15 feet. Our rebreathers aren't yet filled and at a depth this shallow would offer little benefit. We'll use open circuit equipment tonight. We register our dive with island security, prepare our gear at the scuba club, and tote the gear, tanks and all on our bicycles down to the pier.
During this dive we see a similar assortment of critters as I saw a few nights earlier during a dive on the same pier. There were fewer white stingrays but a enough to keep us alert. You certainly don't want to settle on the sand accidentally on top of a stingray. There were numerous small fish, a morray eel on the prowl, peacock flounder, and a stone fish. I was excited to find a white mantis shrimp near the end of the pier before we rounded the far wall. I took a few moments to film this guy while Brian checked out what was around the corner. The shrimp was in a hole in the sand with only his eyes and the tip of his claws exposed. He moved in and out of the hole a little as he used his claws to to groom the edge of the hole. I continued to film him as I slowly moved in a little closer every minute or two. I eventually got within about a foot and yet he only allowed me to see his eyes and claw tips.
I hoped to entice him to come at least partly out of his hole. I had heard that mantis shrimp were not very skittish so I decided to move my finger in front of my housing, wiggling it around to see if his curiosity would bring him closer to investigate. Nothing! So I moved my finger a little closer ... still nothing. I moved my finger closer still, now my finger was probably within 6 inches of his eyes. All of a sudden Brian came up behind me, pulled my hand back and proceeded to scold me in underwater gibberish "dooonat du dhahjkkt, thjkkljey ssfdpearaher". I had no idea what he was trying to say but I was pretty sure he was trying to tell me that it was going to kill me. I had heard that mantis shrimp club their prey with a strong claw. I figured it could hurt but what's the worst it could do, break a fingernail? I motioned to Bri that I knew it clubbed things and prepared to continue taunting the shrimp. Brian resumed his underwater lecture. At this point Brian seemed more upset than the shrimp, I had some good footage, and was ready to move on. I shut down the camera and we moved on along the corner of the pier.
During the remainder of the dive we found some interesting artifacts. Plenty of the usual pier trash in the form of tires, beer cans, and boat parts. We also found numerous small caliber shells. A later examination by Mark Miller confirmed that they were American. Brian found the rubber frame from a pair of goggles. I'd like to think it was from a war era aviator although it's more likely some welder dropped it accidentally over the side of a boat 20 years ago.
We'd been in the water for over 90 minutes, it was getting late, and we still had to report to island security to close out our dive so we made our way back to shore. Although this dive could hardly be called world-class and we both have many dives under our belt, we still participate in the custom of post-dive afterglow. What we saw, what we wanted to see, what we didn't see .... "wait a minute, I didn't see that, where did you see that?" Here's a brief excerpt: ....
Gator: "so Brian, what was the big fuss about the mantis?"
Brian: " What do you mean? I didn't want so see you bleed all over the place!".
Gator: "Hey, thanks for all the concern but I know all about mantis shrimp, they hit things with their claws, I figured I'd sacrifice a fingernail for a cool shot."
Brian: "Man, those are the brightly colored mantis shrimp that do that. These are a different type of shrimp."
Gator: "Oh, really, what do these white ones do?"
Brian: "Well, they ambush fish when they swim over their holes and spear them with a really sharp claw. That one you were teasing could have easily cut your finger to the bone."
Gator: (with a lot less confidence) "Man, that's crazy ... errh ... thanks for the safety tip."
By the time we finish putting our gear away, check in with island security, and get back to the room it's about midnight. I'm surprised to see Mark still up. Apparently, just before we reported back to security, they had called the room checking to see if we had returned or if we were MIA. A quick debriefing of our dive to Mark and everyone was ready for bed. We set our guest, Brian, up with his own room (Jonathan's is empty while he's on Kwajalein). As we turn out the lights, Mark and I joke about what time we expect Jon and Tom to return in the morning. They had said they would be back by 7 am but that would mean waking up before 6 am. I'm not saying Jon can't get up early but as much as I've worked on with him I've seen him get up early maybe once or twice.
We all expect to sleep in nice and late tomorrow ....